Friday, January 6, 2012

Chadron native made most of life after being disabled

A Chadron native who made the most of her life after being disabled in an automobile accident a few months after she had graduated from high school died last week at her home in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Janet Kohler, 69, died on Monday, Dec. 26, just two weeks after it was determined that she had cancer.
CHS Class of 1960
She was born and raised in Chadron and graduated from Chadron High School in May 1960. That summer, she and a classmate, Lois Poppe, worked as aides at the Crawford hospital.  They were returning from work on Sunday, Aug. 7, 1960 when Poppe lost control of the nearly new Ford Falcon she was driving about 10 miles west of Chadron on “old” Highway 20.   
The car began to whip, crossed the centerline, went into the left ditch and rolled end over end several times, according to the news story in the Chadron Record.  Poppe died before the ambulance reached the Chadron hospital, and Kohler was paralyzed from the waist down.
Both women had been busy high school students. Poppe was a percussionist for the band and the piano accompanist for the choir and the all-school musical, “Carousel,” that had been presented in the spring of 1960.  She and her younger sister, Laurel, had acted out “The Lord’s Prayer” in sign language at the community’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant the last week of July.
Kohler played the flute in the band and was “the life of the party” type who had a keen sense of humor.
Her sister-in-law, Sherry Weymouth Kohler of Troy, Ill., called Janet, “A great gal with loads of personality. She had a wonderful way of putting everyone at ease with her disability. She always made us proud to be a part of her family.”
Her older brother, Bill Kohler of Chadron, said, “She made the best of her predicament and was upbeat clear to the end. She was always real independent.”
She had talked to both of her brothers by telephone just a day or two before her death.
After a year of rehabilitation following the accident, Kohler attended Chadron State College in 1961-62. The handicap did not slow her down. She joined the Chadron State Players, a drama group, was a member of the Anokasan (annual) staff and belonged to Zeta Alpha, a social sorority.
However, because it was much more handicap accessible, she transferred to the University of Missouri the next year and earned both a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and a master’s degree in social work there.
Her first job after she earned the master’s degree was at the Butterfield Boys Ranch at Marshall, Mo.

Kohler spent most of the rest of her professional life working for the California Mental Health Department.   Her positions included director of patients’ rights, regional director of mental health programs and southern California director of forensics.

She received several honors for her work. Among them was a commendation resolution passed by the California senate for her service to the state. She also earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Southern California, helping her attain the administrative jobs that she held.

After retiring in the mid-1980s, Kohler was a volunteer for the Assistance League of Huntington Beach and also helped Latino youths through the El Viento Foundation.

A Chadron High classmate, Guyla Harrison Armstrong, now of Allen, Tex., remained in close contact with Kohler the last 50-plus years, and visited her in California last summer.  

“We became best friends when we were 12 years old and both of us were seventh graders,” Guyla remembers. “I enjoyed her and appreciated her friendship a lot. She had a hard life because of her disability, but she never complained and kept the sense of humor that she had when we were kids.”

The friendship became especially close in the mid-1980s after Armstrong and her family moved from Kearney to Fullerton, Calif., where she taught in colleges.

“One of our daughters was an outstanding swimmer and her coach lived in Huntington Beach,” Armstrong said. “It was about a 20- to 25-minute trip from our house. Nearly every day for several years, I drove her to the pool where she practiced and then visited Janet. That was after she had retired and was living in her nice condominium that is about a half mile from the ocean.

“Later on, we met often for lunch in a little restaurant halfway between our homes. We always had a lot of fun.  She always had a car and had no problems driving in the traffic.”

Armstrong and family members recall that Kohler’s father, Bill, who owned an automobile dealership in Chadron, rigged up the hand controls for the first car that she drove after the accident.

Janet Kohler is show with one of 
her dogs a few years ago.  They
were named Willie and Gracie after
her parents, Bill and Grace Kohler.
Armstrong said Kohler confided to her that doctors, after examining her spinal injury, marveled that she was not a quadriplegic.

“I think it was God’s doing that she was not completely paralyzed,” Armstrong said. “Janet was the perfect social worker. She had that kind of a heart and helped so many people.”

One of them is Eric Isaker. They met in 1997, through one of the agencies where she was a volunteer. He was in his 20s and had fallen on hard times. He had a low-paying job and had lost his place to live. She had an extra room in her condo and invited him to move in and help take care of her.

“I planned to stay just a year until I got back on my feet,” said Isaker, who is now a veterinary technician.  “But we got along so well that I never moved out. She was really good to me and I tried to help her all I could.”

Kohler reportedly left her possessions to Isaker.

Although it wasn’t always easy, Kohler loved to travel. She and her brother Jim went to Hawaii  once and Isaker and her returned several times in recent years, he said.

Jim and Sherry Kohler also took her with them on two trips to Europe. They recall that in 1988 the three of them were leaving a hotel in Paris when a man recognized her.

“He told us he’d know that smile and red hair anywhere,” Sherry related. “She had taught him while he was in a prison relief program in California.  He thanked her several times for the help she’d given him.”

Sherry also noted that after the obituary appeared in the Orange County Register last week, two special comments were posted online by others she had befriended. 

One noted they had met through the Huntington Beach Assistance Program and thanked her for helping make the El Viento program succeed.  “You’ll also be greatly missed by the gals at bunco,” it added. 

The other said, “You always had a kind word and an encouraging smile. The world has one less caring soul today.”

Thanks to good friend Con Marshall for sharing this story